In Egypt churches are being burned again. This happens there from time to time when there is a national crisis or when a member of the Coptic minority is in a dispute with someone from the Muslim majority. Why? Because being a “true” Arab means being Muslim. In the eyes of many in Egypt (and other Muslim countries) Islam is the cultural-national glue of Egyptian society, just as Judaism is the cultural-national glue of Israeli society. Those who do not belong to the ruling religion still have civil rights, but in the deeper sense they are considered foreign.
This viewpoint is paradoxical, as in both countries the “foreigners” are the members of the majority. In Egypt, just like in Israel, the religious minority was there before the majority. Christianity was the dominant religion in Egypt before Islam. The Copts are part of an ancient population that was already there when the Muslim conquerors arrived in the 7th century. Coptic Christianity did not arrive with the colonialists. It is ancient and deep-rooted, like the non-Western Christian movements in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. In all of these countries, the Christians are in a bad situation. In other Muslim countries their situation is very bad (according to estimates, close to a million Christians were murdered in Sudan).
Things weren’t always like this. Historically speaking, Islam is a more tolerant religion than Christianity. Until the 20th century a Christian who lived in an Islamic country was far better off than a Muslim who lived in a Christian land. All this changed in the modern age. The West adopted a standpoint of religious tolerance and blurred its Christian identity. The Muslim world, on the other hand, tightened the bond between nationalism and Islamism.
The Copts, despite their ancient Egyptian roots, are considered less Egyptian than the country’s Muslim citizens and are treated accordingly. When Muslims feel threatened, they attack the local Christian community.
This does not occur solely during times of crisis. When a Danish newspaper publishes a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, churches are torched all across the Muslim world. When the Muslim Brotherhood wants to express its religious identity in Egypt, they do so by attacking their Christian brothers.
The regime does not encourage these attacks because it accepts, at least in theory, the Western civilian concept according to which all citizens have equal rights. It condemns the attacks on law-abiding citizens, regardless of their religious persuasion. But on the ground, the authorities tend to turn a blind eye. The assailants are rarely punished or receive very light punishment.
Despite the fact that the Copts make up about 10% of Egypt’s population, their representation in government and educational institutions is miniscule. In Egypt you will always find a Coptic minister or governor. The heads of the church are invited to official events (and declare their loyalty to the regime), but usually there is an unspoken agreement that the members of the minority should know their place.
In light of this situation, many Christian citizens of Muslim countries choose to leave. The Christian population in Muslim states is gradually declining. The majority in these countries does not seem to mind, on the contrary. But what’s surprising is the fact that this situation is acceptable to the “Christian” West.
The constant harassment and discrimination the Christian minorities suffer from is viewed by the West as an internal problem that is related to the local culture and therefore does not warrant intervention. Christians are being murdered in Algeria or Sudan? Churches are being burned in Egypt? This is unpleasant, but not so bad.
From this we can learn that in countries where the link between the national definition and the religious definition is too tight, belonging to a religious minority is not the most pleasant thing. This is true not only for Egypt.